Gore Pinched My Photos - Veteran Vietnam Cameraman
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Famed "killing fields" combat photographer Al Rockoff says Al Gore lied and snatched his photos in 1971 during their military service in Vietnam, but revenge was achieved by Rockoff's Florida vote for George W. Bush.
"It is a big deal for me, because I lost my photographs. I lost. And he misled me," Rockoff said in a taped interview in the Cambodian capital where he is currently shooting pictures for his book.
"I know he is a liar and a con artist and he took from me and did not return."
Rockoff, 52, is the legendary photojournalist portrayed by actor John Malkovich in the film, "The Killing Fields," which shows the 1975 US military withdrawal from Cambodia and victory by Khmer Rouge guerrilla leader Pol Pot.
Today, Rockoff continues to shoot photos in Cambodia as a civilian, for his book chronicling the past 30 years of this violent Southeast Asian nation.
The gray-bearded Rockoff, however, is still bitter over his encounter with Gore when they both served in the military.
"I was in Vietnam, 1967 to 1971. I had four years there during the American War," Rockoff said.
"In 1971, while working as an army photographer for an army photographic unit, I was told by the officer in charge there would be somebody coming in to the unit from an army engineer publication and who is interested in talking to me.
"So this guy comes to my unit and we're talking for a while. He's asking questions about my job, about the war, about my unit. I also had a selection of photographs of mine that I showed him.
"I assumed, at the time, he was working on an article about my unit, and that maybe talking to me, and my showing him photographs, would help him.
"I don't know how long we were talking, it could easily have easily been 20 minutes or so. The person had a name tag and it said: 'Gore.'
"He's looking at the pictures. I said he could look at them but I do want them back. 'Take a couple of weeks, there's no hurry, but I do want them back'," Rockoff remembered telling Gore.
"He did not articulate a 'yes', he just indicated by nodding his head, 'yes'. A nod is as good as a 'yes' in that case.
"So I gave him about 18 to about two dozen pictures. Some were personal, and some were US Army photographs. In the course of doing my job as an army photographer, I got out to the field frequently.
"Some of them were my personal property and were not army photos."
The photographer said the meeting occurred at Rockoff's unit base, in Long Binh, near Bien Hoa airbase, close to Saigon.
Rockoff, from Florida, said he had never met Gore before.
"At the end of the conversation, as he's getting ready to leave, I said, 'Where are you from? Are you from Florida?' And he said, "No. Tennessee."
After handing Gore the black-and-white photos, the two men parted.
"At the time, I did not know this was a senator's son," Rockoff added, though he sensed Gore was not typical.
"In all of my years -- eight years active duty and a couple of years reserve time -- he was the only enlisted person I ever met that acted like an officer. He was rather stiff and formal.
"He wasn't a very friendly person. In other words, I sure as hell wasn't going to go out and have a beer with him afterwards."
Gore never returned the pictures to Rockoff, the photographer said.
"About two weeks later, I was at his unit. I asked somebody and they said, 'Oh, he's gone'.
"And I said, 'What? What do you mean he's gone? He's coming back, isn't he?' And the person said, 'No, he's going to the States, he won't be back.'"
Rockoff said the photos which Gore took included "some stuff from the field, some stuff that was just day-to-day life there. Nothing really super dramatic. Nothing involving heavy combat.
"Some were official army photos, and some were my own. It's a mix.
"I'm hazy in my recollection of a specific shot. You'll have to ask Tipper because he probably showed them to Tipper and said he took them," Rockoff added, referring to Gore's wife.
"I was an army photographer, this was stuff for Department of the Army. This wasn't Public Information Office. It wasn't paparazzi shit.
"I was shooting for historical record for Department of the Army. And this guy comes in and pulls this on me. "A few years later, I caught on to who this person was."
In the 1980s, he spotted Gore at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, where Gore gave a speech.
"I started to walk towards him afterward. I would have said something like, 'You don't know me, but...' and I would have mentioned the pictures.
"But then I backed off. I didn't go up to him because he looked very preoccupied and he was walking all by himself. He had no security around him.
"I just said, 'Ah, to hell with it.' And I just walked past him, and he walked by," Rockoff said.
"I have pictures of him walking towards me. I have a picture of him giving the speech. I'll never give him a copy of it because it's none of his business, because he's already got more photos of mine than I'm willing to let him have in the future."
Gore's neglect was bothersome because Rockoff is extremely proud of his work, he added.
"My army unit, being a photographic unit, came under Signal Corps," Rockoff said.
"I'm probably the best photographer in my unit, of those dead or alive."
Fast forward to the year 2000 and the US presidential election. Rockoff finally extracts symbolic payment for his loss.
"It bothered me for a quarter century and I think I exorcised that ghost by my actions back in Florida, the second week in October, when I cast my absentee ballot."
Frequently shuttling between his home in Ft. Lauderdale and a hotel in Cambodia, Rockoff cast his absentee ballot while in Florida on a two-month visit.
"I went in Monday to the election office at the county governmental center in Ft. Lauderdale, for Broward county.
"I explained I will be in Cambodia, showed my plane ticket. I said I would like to vote here because I don't trust the mail, I don't want it to get lost in the mail."
Rockoff said the election official who accepted his ballot told him, "Congratulations, you are the first absentee ballot cast in Broward county."
Rockoff said despite a recount, "Gore picked up about 500 votes in Broward county, but he did not pick up my vote because I had no pregnant chads and I did it properly.
"And I did not vote for Albert Gore. I voted for my governor's brother.
"I take it more than just a personal animosity towards Al Gore not returning photographs. I also see differences in their possible foreign policies.
"I'll give him credit, he's not a stupid person. He is probably the smarter of the two candidates. But when it comes to ethics, I consider him lacking in that, and I take it very seriously."
Stroking his long beard and grinning, Rockoff added, "But my vote is official, and that's payback."
Richard S. Ehrlich
email@example.com 17 Supavat Court, 71/1 Yen Arkat Road, Bangkok 10120 Thailand phone (66 2) 286 2434 fax via u.s.a. (978) 334 5691